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UN Sustainability Summit fails to give its imperatives priorities or teeth, accept there are planetary boundaries, or control the private sector

At the end of last September, under the shadow of the glimmering New York skyline overhead, the world celebrated the dawn of a new era. The UN Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) concluded with a massive party in Central Park, graced by the presence of superstars such as Ed Sheerin and Beyonce. The party was sponsored by Gucci, Citi, Unilever, Google and others. Many of their super-rich executives could well have been watching the party from their high-rise apartments in that most elegant part of the planet.

Some people had paid upwards of $10,000 for VIP passes to the party. All proceeds went to charity, of course. There was no whiff of a world on the brink of collapse, threatened environmental destruction and violent extremism, the one that had been so eloquently articulated by Pope Francis in his landmark address to the UN General Assembly the previous day.

The gap between the optimistic, almost euphoric atmosphere in some UN quarters and the pessimistic, almost despairing perspectives of others, including Pope Francis, was palpable at the Summit. On the one hand, famous business moguls, UN officials and many states, including Ireland, lined up to hail the goals as a new beginning. On the other hand, many wondered whether yet more goals would make any difference at all or even whether they would take us in the wrong direction altogether.

Whatever your perspective, the SDGs are now a universally agreed UN document. For the most part, they set out important objectives for the world, 17 in all.

They point to all the critical areas of human development that must be addressed if we are to tackle inequality, poverty and environmental destruction. They set 167 indicators of progress which are to be monitored and followed up annually. Importantly, for the first time ever, they promise to “leave no-one behind” and put a deadline of 2030 on achieving that goal.

While as individual objectives the SDGs are desirable, as a global policy framework they are deeply flawed in at least four ways.

Firstly, the sheer number of goals agreed and the lack of real interconnection between them has turned them into a shopping list. Everything becomes equally important. Yet the truth is that global imperatives exist. There are critical enablers which everyone needs to address alongside second-level priorities, which can be reached only on condition the first are being achieved. So the SDGs create a kind of policy fog in which it is hard to see the wood from the trees.


Secondly, despite years of debate, the goals fail to resolve the decades old conundrum of sustainable development. This is the fact that ‘economic’, ‘social’ and ‘environmental’ dimensions do not really sit side by side or form interlocking circles. The ‘economic’ and the ‘social’, in reality, are dependent on the ‘environmental’. We need to move away from the inadequate cliche of interlocking circles to a ‘doughnut’ model as put forward by Oxfam. There is no overarching agreement in the SDGs that we need to move towards a world which lives within planetary boundaries. This is a real opportunity lost.

Thirdly, however worthy the SDGs are, they are weak voluntary initiatives rather than an international treaty. Of course, voluntary initiatives have an important role in setting norms, but they only thrive when the environment is conducive to their realisation and are matched by strong implementation measures. The goals are debilitated by dysfunctional power structures, which render them a side-show, if not quite irrelevant to the main drivers of power.

Unfortunately, important policies are being actively promoted by the same states that signed up to the SDGs and whose actions elsewhere directly contradict many of the goals. One alarming example is the emerging rules on global trade and investment, epitomised by the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is being negotiated between the EU and USA. Controversial proposals within TTIP include Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanisms. These will effectively facilitate MultiNational Corporations to circumvent domestic court systems and sue sovereign states through a confidential arbitration mechanism in challenging governments for introducing regulations that in multinational businesses’ view harms their interests or profit margins. This raises concerns about the state’s right to regulate on a wide range of public policies, including extreme poverty and environmental standards. SDGs do not even enter into these negotiations. Another example is continued state subsidies and investments in fossil fuels. If remaining below the agreed 2°C-increase target for global temperatures is to be possible, a basic pre-requisite for the SDGs, 80% of known remaining fossil fuels need to remain under ground. Yet in 2014 the global economy missed the decarbonisation target needed to limit global warming to 2°C for the sixth year running.

Fourthly, the respective roles of the state and the private sector in SDG development and implementation is deeply concerning. The visibility of the private sector and the pledges made in New York reflect the way that major corporations have managed to skew the agenda. One official pledge made by MasterCard at the SDG Private Sector Forum to bring 500 million people in the developing world into the credit market, thus enabling them to achieve Goal 8, is indicative of this. A pick-and-mix approach to the SDGs is already evident, facilitating corporations to use them to their marketing advantage while not addressing basic human rights and issues such as lack of accountability.

The UN appears to have already relinquished control of its own message about the SDGs to the corporate sector through its ‘Global Goals’ campaign. This was launched during the Summit. In signing a licensing agreement for the Goals with key sponsors such as Gucci, Citi and others, it effectively delivered the SDGs, a key global public good, into private ownership. A clause in the campaign agreement means that those who use the goals’ branding must do so in ways which do not damage the partner brands. Technically speaking, therefore, if an NGO such as Trócaire or Christian Aid, draws attention to the systemic problems of corporate power whilst using the goals’ branding, they are in breach of the licence. Though it may have been granted only on a temporary basis, it could be a sign of things to come.

The SDGs may offer some positive promises, but the key test is what is happening rather than what is being said. The SDGs do little to tackle systemic issues of inequality and environmental degradation that are being exacerbated by other policies. Unlike with the SDGs, in other policy frameworks governments are willing to talk money and will more readily accept robust implementation and accountability structures. The real challenge for those civil society organisations who believe in justice is to take advantage of whatever substance there is to the SDGs, but to remain focused on the key drivers of inequality rather than being drawn into a sterile technical debate around implementation.

Lorna Gold

Lorna Gold is Head of Policy and Advocacy with Trócaire